Facebook is guilty of many things, but leaving aside the vast, scandalous surveillance programme it has created while apparently knowing everything about its “users” and little about its app developers, one of its biggest sins is against language. Corporate language is all terrible, of course, but wrestling with tech rhetoric is like trying to wrestle with a cloud. You know it’s there, it’s so visible, but you can’t grab it.
The latest Facebook disaster, a scandal so immense that it should, by rights, bring the whole thing crashing down, provides us with an opportunity to examine Mark Zuckerberg’s awkward communication up close. It’s often the case that a company with a particular purpose finds that difficult to personify. And so, Zuckerberg can’t connect with people.
You can have all the ingredients in a bowl, but it still doesn’t make a cake. When Zuckerberg talks, you can almost see an army of well-paid media trainers in the corner mouthing the words he’s saying. Come on, buddy! You can do it! I mean, it should work. He’s a young, harmless-to-the-point-of-vacant-looking guy. He wears a T-shirt. There are definitely words coming out of his mouth. Things such as “community”, or “Thank you for believing in this community. I promise to do better for you”, as his latest apology goes – the anaemic, childish language of self-satisfied unaccountability.
Zuckerberg specialises in non-committal nothingness, such as 'I'm not sure we shouldn't be regulated'
He specialises in non-committal nothingness, such as: “I’m not sure we shouldn’t be regulated.” Or: “If it is ever the case that I am the most informed person at Facebook in the best position to testify, I will happily do that.” Or: “There are people at the company whose full jobs are to deal with legal compliance or some of these different things, and they’re just fundamentally more in the details on those things,” as he told CNN. What? Those are definitely words, and they are certainly coming out of someone’s mouth – I’m just not sure they mean anything.
While Zuckerberg is trying to convince the global population that he is human and not a totem pole of sentient ink-jet printers stacked on each other’s shoulders underneath a trench coat below a 3D-printed silicone neck and mask, language that used to mean something continues to be butchered. Tech hides behind soft language. Whereas other corporate culture gets overrun with jargon, tech culture took normal, safe-sounding words and repurposed them as a new form of jargon, the type of language that after you hear it, it almost leaves a residue. Tech language is the clammy hand of a sleazy wedding guest – it presses up against you, pretending to be intimate and warm, but is unwanted and unnerving.
I was at Offset this weekend, the Irish creative conference that leans a fair deal on the creative aspects of advertising and branding. At one point a guy called Drew Bennett, who is in charge of Facebook’s artist-in-residence programme, was speaking at length on the main stage. I’m not denying the support, money and exposure Facebook offers to artists – although I can’t think of a place more soulless to exhibit one’s work than a multibillion dollar tech company’s office – but it is possible to acknowledge that, as well as maybe even encourage artists to milk and bleed Facebook for every cent they can extract from it while also critiquing the grubbiness of the company and the slithering nature of the language and eye-rolling tedium of how people in Facebookland express themselves.
All Facebook workers should be saluted for not vomiting up the KoolAid they've been guzzling the past few years
Bennett went full Facebook bingo on the audience, talking about “authentic communication” and “a true community” and “values”. At one point he referred to places where Facebook workers could congregate or sit outside as “IRL social platforms”. All Facebook workers should be saluted for not vomiting up the KoolAid they’ve been guzzling the past few years when they talk like this, as it really is a massive achievement, but the attempts at using cuddly language to disarm have reached a point where it is all cliché, all massively disingenuous, all propagandised.
Wrapping tech culture – which thrives on dismantling industries without caring about the consequences, and harvesting personal and private information for advertisers and whoever else wants to control what we think and do – in the slanket-y language that Web 3.0 birthed, worked for a while. But that slanket is threadbare now, its fleece has turned ball-y and rough. It’s not comforting anymore.
The privilege and arrogance of tech bosses such as Zuckerberg, the expectation of forgiveness for monumental – potentially criminal – screwups, the refusal to be responsible for anything: all of this is part of the petulance of tech.
One line CNN highlighted from its interview with Zuckerberg, citing it as “a rare emotional moment”, was this: “I used to think that the most important thing to me by far was ... having the greatest positive impact across the world that I can, and now I really just care about building something that my girls are gonna grow up and be proud of me for.” What does that even mean? It’s more shrouding, anodyne, diversionary patter that is an attempt at manufacturing empathy and reliability for a guy who built his company by ripping off Hot or Not, and in the early days called those who handed over their data to his website “dumb f***s”. What a terrible thing to say, right? Well, at least it was honest.